A MARRIED priest used his position of trust to coerce into a sexual relationship, rape, and abuse a 15-year-old girl whom he had prepared for baptism and confirmation, the Bishop’s disciplinary tribunal of the diocese of Chester has concluded unanimously.
The priest, the Revd Simon Marsh, aged 59, who was Vicar of St Michael and All Angels, Bramhall, has been removed from office and prohibited from ministering for life under the Clergy Discipline Commission Guidance on Penalties, the strongest sanction available.
The hearing was conducted in July, in private, by the chair, Roger Kay QC; Dr Colin Price; Canon Rachel Harrison; Canon Paul Tudge; and Mrs Glenna Briggs. The determination of the tribunal was published by the Church of England on Monday.
Mr Marsh befriended the young woman (a parishioner identified only as Ms XY), in 2009, when she had just turned 15, the tribunal paper states. She had become interested in Christian life and was looking for “proper parental support and understanding” amid an unhappy and “dysfunctional” family life.
For three years after her baptism, Mr Marsh had sexual relations with the child — “often against her will” — and continued the “increasing coercive, aggressive and controlling” relationship until Ms XY broke it off in 2013.
Ms XY first brought the allegations against Mr Marsh to the police in April 2014. He was interviewed twice under caution and arrested on suspicion of rape and sexual assault that June.
After a year-long police investigation, no charges were brought, however. A CPS spokesman said at the time: “We have reached a decision that there is insufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction and therefore consider that no further action should be taken in this case.”
The formal complaint under the Clergy Discipline Measure was brought by the Archdeacon of Macclesfield, the Ven. Ian Bishop, in December 2015. The case was referred to the Bishop’s disciplinary tribunal. Mr Marsh denied all the allegations, so the tribunal had to judge between two conflicting accounts.
The tribunal found Mr Marsh a “deeply unsatisfactory” witness who was “in total denial” of the events, its paper says. He had maintained that any expressions of love were platonic and pastoral.
“He struck us as, we are sad to say, a deeply controlling man as was apparent not only from his treatment of Ms XY, but also an occasion where the Archdeacon himself was at his, [Mr Marsh’s] church, only to find himself publicly corrected in his theology.
“His request for the second police interview added very little . . . but was a plain attempt to cast doubt on Ms XY’s mental well-being and character; a further attempt, in our judgement, to control events, this time during the course of the police investigation.”
Ms XY was, by comparison, an “honest, truthful, and compelling” witness, fair and balanced, the tribunal says, despite the ordeal she had experienced. Other evidence included “inappropriate” photographs Mr Marsh had taken of Ms XY, and emails and blog and website posts about the relationship.
“We had and have no hesitation in accepting almost the totality of her evidence,” the tribunal says. “Where we have not, it is only because we felt she may have been genuinely but honestly mistaken.”
At the start of the events, in 2009, the church had been Ms XY’s refuge, the tribunal explains: “Rather than go home (where she was often locked out), she would go to the church where she felt safe and could play the piano and do her homework.”
By summer 2010, Mr Marsh and Ms XY were meeting regularly at the vicarage, often when his wife was away tending to her sick father. “After a disastrous summer holiday abroad, Ms XY was particularly down or depressed. She felt suicidal and confided in [Mr Marsh].”
By the autumn, they were meeting almost every day, which Mr Marsh urged Ms XY to keep secret from people who would say it was inappropriate. Ms XY developed what she described as a “teenage crush” on Mr Marsh that was noticed by individuals in the congregation.
When he kissed her for the first time, she was “devastated” and said that she loved him as a father. He continued to send her emails and meet her alone in the vicarage, telling her that his wife had cancer and that they no longer had sexual relations. (She died in January this year.)
Sexual intimacy became a part of their meetings, which she permitted out of “fear of losing him”, although they did not have sex, the tribunal says. “Increasingly, he used force, anger and pressure, physical, emotional, and even theological, to compel her to submit to his increasing sexual demands and gratification.”
On one occasion, he insisted she give him oral sex when he was angry she spilt coffee on the carpet. “As time moved on, Ms XY alternated between submitting to [Mr Marsh’s] demands and trying to tell him that their sexual relationship should stop. It was wrong and dishonourable to his wife.” His wife had told him it was inappropriate for her husband to meet Ms XY alone at her age.
Mr Marsh forced Ms XY to have intercourse with him shortly before her 18th birthday in April 2012, “telling her both that she ‘had asked for this’ and that ‘it would only happen once because God could not approve of more’, but that it ‘would unite our souls and we will always be together in heaven’.” He later told her that they were now “married in the eyes of God”.
Ms XY started university in 2012. Mr Marsh remained in contact with her, but when she returned home, she tried to avoid him, and felt suicidal on occasion.
“In August , she told another Vicar she had met at Bramhall that she had been raped. He told her to think carefully about reporting it because of the risk to others.” She sent a last email to Mr Marsh in the December and blocked him. By the following April, she had left the church, did not proceed to ordination, and reported matters to the police.
In its decision on the penalty for Mr Marsh, the tribunal concluded that “even the commission of adultery, as occurred here, merits the most serious penalty. There were, however, a number of aggravating features in this case.”
These included that Ms XY was a teenager at the time of the abuse, that the sexual relationship was not totally consensual, including the use of force, and that Mr Marsh did not accept the evidence of Ms XY.
While Mr Marsh said that he did not intend to return to ministry after the proceedings, he had made no offer to resign. Representing Mr Marsh, Mark Hill QC said that the priest had felt “a deep sense of remorse for the failings in his conduct”, despite repeatedly denying sexual impropriety.
“Mr Hill asked us to consider a lengthy time for prohibition taking into account the fact that the Respondent was well thought of, the length of these proceedings, which began in 2015 with the Archdeacon’s complaint, the fact that he has lost his wife, and that he has also lost his father. He accepts the reputational damage caused to the Church.
“The tribunal must, therefore, consider not only the circumstances as proved, and the position of the Respondent but also that of Miss XY, the impact on the wider Church and congregation, and those for whom the Respondent might be expected to have pastoral care if he returned to ministry. We must also note the clear breach, in this case, of the Respondent’s duties in respect of pastoral care.
“We take the view that the only right course of action and the appropriate penalty in this case in all the circumstances, having particular regard to the gravity of the proven allegations as well as the aggravating features above mentioned, is removal from office and prohibition for life.”
The Bishop of Chester, Dr Peter Forster, has apologised on behalf of the Church. He said in a statement on Monday that he was “greatly saddened” that a cleric in his diocese could “so misuse his position” of trust in such a way.
“I would pay tribute to the courage of the Complainant in supporting the formal complaint and being willing to submit herself to cross-examination during the hearing. I apologise unreservedly to her on behalf of the Church, and we will continue to offer pastoral support to her.
“This is a sad and inexcusable tale of the abuse of trust and power by a priest of the Church of England. We will do all that we can to minimise the likelihood of the recurrence of such abuse.
“It is now nearly five years since the original complaint was made to the police. This has been a very difficult time for the parish of St Michael, Bramhall, and I pay tribute to all those who have enabled the worship and wider life of the parish to continue with admirable resilience. We will now move as quickly as possible to appoint a new vicar.”